Messianism, roots 4: Josiah and Cyrus

Messiah (mâšîah, "the anointed one"): Jewish religious concept, a future savior who will, in some sense, come to restore Israel. Both the nature of the Messiah and the restoration were matters of debate.

Roots of the concept: Josiah

Judah, Israel, and their neighbors

In 612 BCE, the Babylonians and Medes subjected the Assyrians. Their capitals Aššur and Nineveh were destroyed (more). This created an unstable situation in the west: who was the new master of former Assyrian possessions like Aram, Israel and towns like Gaza, Ashkalon, Tyre and Sidon?

One of the pretenders was Josiah of Judah. This sixteenth-generation lineal descendant of the legendary king David had become king of the southern kingdom in 639 BCE, and his reign was marked by a religious renaissance and the renewal of the Covenant. In his eighteenth regnal year (622), the high-priest Hilkiah had discovered a hitherto unknown text that described how the Jews would had to behave. Modern scholars identify this scroll with the book Deuteronomy and assume that it was not discovered, but written in 622.

Ten years later, when it had become clear that Assyria was doomed, Judah prepared for the conquest of Israel. To prove that Judah could rightfully claim these territories, many books of the Bible were written or rewritten (Joshua, Judges, Samuel 1 and 2, Kings 1 and 2). In these texts, several prophecies can be found that describe how one day a Davidic king will rise, purify the cult and restore Israel. A fine example is 1 Kings 13.1-2.

By the word of the Lord a man of God came from Judah to Bethel, as [the Israelite king] Jeroboam was standing by the altar to make a [pagan] offering. He cried out against the altar by the word of the Lord: "O altar, altar! This is what the Lord says: 'A son named Josiah will be born to the house of David. On you he will sacrifice the [pagan] priests of the high places who now make offerings here, and human bones will be burned on you.'"

Another important prediction was put into the mouth of the legendary prophet Balaam. The story can be found in the book of Numbers: Balaam is invited by king Balak of Moab to curse the wandering Hebrews who threatened his kingdom, but instead of cursing the invaders, Balaam blessed the Hebrews several times. The third blessing contained the following, very important line:

I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star shall come out of Jacob and a scepter will rise out of Israel. It shall crush the foreheads of Moab and break down all the sons of Sheth. Edom shall be dispossessed.note

This is a very interesting text. In the first place, it must be noted that in the eighth and seventh century, there was a large temple in Moab (excavated at Deir 'Allâ) where oracles were given in the name of Balaam. Moab had once been a vassal kingdom of Israel but had become independent. It is very plausible that the oracle had once cursed the two Jewish kingdoms, and that the story in Numbers was intended as a correction of these curses.

In the second place, the one who was to crush the foreheads of Moab, break down the (otherwise unknown) sons of Sheth and dispossess Edom, was clearly Josiah. Several scholars have assumed that the prophecy refers to king David, but this is improbable, because - to the best of our archaeological knowledge - the kingdoms of Edom and Moab did not exist in the eleventh century BCE.

With a comparatively large army and armed with sacred texts that proved his historical rights, Josiah set out to conquer Israel. As "predicted", he took Bethel, where he had the bones of the pagan priests excavated and burnt on the altar. However, this was the last of his successes. He was not the only one who wanted to conquer Israel. The Egyptian king Necho II had the same plan. The two kings clashed at Megiddo in northern Israel, and Josiah was killed.

To the Jews who had believed in the ancient prophecies, this caused great problems. After all, the sacred books now contained many prophecies about the coming of an anointed king from the house of David who would purify the cult, restore Israel, crush the foreheads of Moab and dispossess Edom. Micah had also announced the coming of this Davidic ruler. It was obvious that Josiah was not the one whose coming had been predicted.

The predictions had to be reinterpreted. From now on, they referred to a future ruler and the idea that an anointed king, a Messiah, would come to restore Israel belonged to the Jewish heritage. Messianism was invented in the years after the death of Josiah, at the end of the seventh century BCE.       

Roots of the concept: Ezekiel

Cuneiform tablet mentioning the capture of Jerusalem in 597

When the Babylonians had made an end to the last Assyrian resistance, they started to conquer the former Assyrian possessions in the west. In 597, they attacked Jerusalem for the first time and captured the city (16 March). Many Jews were taken captive and exiled. One of them was Ezekiel, who tried to comfort the Jews after they had heard that Jerusalem was finally captured in July 587. (There is some debate whether the text really belongs to the early sixth century, but this discussion is irrelevant for our purposes.)

Like Micah and Isaiah, Ezekiel  predicted that Israel and Judah would be restored, reunited and ruled by a new David. God had said:

I will make them one nation in the land upon the mountains of Israel, and one king shall be king to them all; and they shall be no more two nations, neither shall they be divided into two kingdoms any more at all. Neither shall they defile themselves any more with their idols, nor with their detestable things, nor with any of their transgressions; but I will save them out of all their dwelling places wherein they have sinned and will cleanse them.
So shall they be My people, and I will be their God. And David My servant shall be king over them, and they all shall have one shepherd. They shall also walk in My judgments, and observe My statutes, and do them. And they shall dwell in the land that I have given unto Jacob My servant, wherein your fathers have dwelt; and they shall dwell therein, even they and their children and their children's children for ever. And My servant David shall be their prince for ever. Moreover I will make a covenant of peace with them. It shall be an everlasting covenant. And I will place them, and multiply them, and will set My sanctuary in the midst of them for ever more.note

The word "Messiah" is not used in this text, but we hear about a king from the family of David who will restore Israel. The restoration is to be complete: not only will the old, undivided kingdom be restored, but the true cult for the one God will be restored too. The ideas are, therefore, elaborations of the prophecies of Micah and Isaiah and are well in line with the ideas that were current in the days of Josiah. There is one difference, however: the son of David of Micah and the "shoot of Jesse" of Isaiah were connected with military victories, an element that is conspicuously absent from Ezekiel's prophecy.

There is one new element: the king is called nasi or "prince". It is not likely that Ezekiel introduced this word to have some linguistic variety: he had used the word "king" several times already, but not in the preceding lines. It is likely (but not proven) that the word had already become a title for an idealized king. In later centuries, this was certainly the case.

Roots of the concept: Cyrus

During their exile in Babylon, the Jews started to reconsider their beliefs. Under these difficult circumstances, a prophet announced that God would anoint the Persian king Cyrus the Great, who would destroy the Babylonian empire and liberate the Jews:

Thus says the Lord to His anointed [Messiah], to Cyrus [...] to subdue nations before him and loose the armor of kings, to open before him the double doors, so that the gates will not be shut: "I will go before you and make the crooked places straight; I will break in pieces the gates of bronze and cut the bars of iron. I will give you the treasures of darkness and hidden riches of secret places, so that you may know that I, the Lord, Who call you by your name, am the God of Israel. For Jacob My servant's sake, and Israel My elect, I have even called you by your name; I have named you, though you have not known Me. I am the Lord, and there is no other; there is no God besides Me. I will gird you, though you have not known Me, that they may know from the rising of the sun to its setting that there is none besides Me. I am the Lord, and there is no other; I form the light and create darkness, I make peace and create calamity; I, the Lord, do all these things. Rain down, you heavens, from above, and let the skies pour down righteousness; let the earth open, let them bring forth salvation, and let righteousness spring up together. I, the Lord, have created it."note

The name of this prophet is unknown, but his prophecy about the end of the Babylonian Captivity was added to the prophecies of Isaiah. Therefore, the anonymous prophet is usually called "Second Isaiah" (or Deutero-Isaiah). As it turned out, his announcement came true: Cyrus defeated the Babylonians and took their capital in October 539 BCE. The Jews were allowed "a second Exodus" and returned home, where they rebuilt the Temple. It is remarkable that in his own propaganda, Cyrus wrote that he was chosen by the supreme god - probably his own god Ahuramazda - and that he allowed all exiles - not just the Jews - to return home (more).

However, the Messiah whose coming was predicted by Second Isaiah is not simply identical to Cyrus. The prophet predicts more than just a historical event of great importance: like the first Isaiah, he links a special person to the start of an age in which "salvation would be brought forward and righteousness would spring up". This reminds one of the first Isaiah's words about the "shoot of Jesse", quoted above, which had continued with a description of a harmonious future world where a child could play near the hole of the cobra.

However, there is also a striking difference between the two Isaiahs. The first Isaiah speaks about the special child Immanuel and about a descendant of David's father Jesse; he does not mention an anointed one. The Messiah is introduced by the second Isaiah, but Cyrus was certainly not a member of the house of David. However, these two themes were connected when in later centuries messianic speculation was renewed.